Columns

Ringling Brothers, Martin County Taxpayers and Lawyer-Led Activists

By: Nancy Smith | Posted: May 19, 2014 3:55 AM
I Beg to Differ

Riddle: What do Ringling Brothers and the taxpayers of Martin County, Fla., have in common?

Answer: Both were victimized in court by lawyer-led activist groups, both lawsuits were declared frivolous and in both cases the parties filing them were ordered to pay court costs and/or damages.

Actually, the Ringling Brothers case ended in a settlement in federal court Thursday, when a number of animal rights groups agreed to pay a combined $15.75 million to Feld Entertainment, Ringling’s Florida-based corporate parent.

In both cases, we're talking about the kissin' cousins of the legal profession -- environmental attorneys and animal welfare attorneys. Both do their best to take important areas -- areas where Americans feel a deep connection to policy and practice -- and twist them for profit in the name of righteousness.  The end always justifies the means with these people.  

Here's what happened in the case of Ringling Brothers, newer of the two cases:

The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Animal Welfare Institute and a former elephant handler for the circus and others originally filed suit in 2000 against Feld Entertainment, producer of the circus. They accused the company of mistreating the Asian elephants that perform in its shows.

The case, which cited the Endangered Species Act, was initially dismissed.

Circus elephants

This is where it coulda/shoulda ended. OK, the groups abhor the use of animals in circuses and they gave it a shot. But could they let it go? Of course not. Attorneys call the shots with these folks, and attorneys said onward.

The case dragged on because an appellate court allowed the former elephant handler, Tom Rider, to pursue an individual claim that he was emotionally injured by the company's treatment of its elephants. Rider's job between 1997 and 1999 was to watch over and feed the elephants while working for the circus as a "barn man."

Well, the court wouldn't have it. After a trial in 2009, a district court judge in Washington, D.C., ruled in favor of Feld Entertainment. It found that Rider had overstated his love of elephants and was not a sufficiently credible plaintiff for the case to proceed.

The judge declared Rider to be essentially a "paid plaintiff," finding that his only source of income during the previous eight years had been the animal-welfare groups involved in the case and media companies producing reports about it.

Animal welfare activists had actually propped him up like a scarecrow in a cornfield. Their money kept Rider going forward with the case, fed moral outrage -- which gloriously aided the groups' fundraising -- and kept the circus knee-deep in legal expense.

Next thing you know, Feld Entertainment turned around and sued Rider and the animal welfare groups, accusing them of abuse of process, malicious prosecution and violation of federal racketeering laws through unfounded litigation. Feld had them over a barrel. The ASPCA opted out in the end, agreeing to settle, but declaring that the agreement shouldn't be taken as an admission of wrongdoing.

Now let's remember a prior case in Martin County involving so-called "environmental groups" and the attorneys who pull their strings.

It's not remotely on the same scale as the Feld/Ringling Brothers case, but it certainly is closely related. It involved the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee ordering environmental attorney Richard Grosso to repay court costs because he filed a frivolous appeal in a Martin County land use case. 

The case it involves was a County Commission vote in 2009 to reduce the minimum lot size on 191,000 agricultural acres in western Martin County from 20 to 2 acres. The idea was to pave the way for clustered development, an avenue for saving green space and allowing rural property owners to trade large parcels for development credits.

Grosso and his clients, 1000 Friends of Florida and Martin County Conservation Alliance, didn't like it and, even though it's almost universally considered a good and ecological thing and sound policy to help the damaged Everglades, they sued Martin County, the Florida Department of Community Affairs and various development interests. They lost. And they were sanctioned for wasting everybody's time and money.

It might not have been a landmark case, but it was close. Like the Ringling Brothers decision, it struck a knockout blow to all who would raise "meritless appellate arguments on the chance they will 'stick.'"

Unfortunately for the taxpayers in Martin County, the story took a bizarre turn after the 1st DCA's ruling. The parties that sued and lost -- same ones who have cost Martin taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in costly, unsuccessful lawsuits over many years -- had become the Martin County Commission. They are now virtually running the county.

So the guilty parties ended up negotiating with themselves.

What should have been a financial return of some $35,000, maybe more, turned into a cash payday of $2,500 for the revenue-short taxpayers of Martin County. Pennies on the dollar. No wonder it was all worked out behind closed doors, never reported in a public meeting, never found in the local newspaper, even after the settlement was a done deal.  

But in the end, the point was made, as it was in the Ringling Brothers case. Activist groups that depend on taking the bite out of corporations in court as a punitive instrument are beginning to get a second look. The reason is simple: animal welfare groups and environmental groups, taken as collective nouns, as collectives who huddle together for every legal strike, are themselves corporations.

Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote in the Huffington Post, "I am sure it pains every animal protection advocate to think that Feld gets any money from animal protection groups. But that is the risk of litigation that challenges major corporations, who lawyer-up and file retaliatory grudge actions."

Grudge actions? Pacelle actually looks at the circus people's suit to get their money back as a SLAPP suit. As if they have no grievance. They're supposed to go along for years fighting a disingenuous lawsuit claim, forking over court costs, apparently until they're broken.

Let these decisions be a lesson in caution for the leaders of activist organizations to pay closer attention to where their attorneys are leading them. Both decisions were victories because in both cases, the appeals filed weren't about land use or circus elephants. They were about protesting through litigation to excess. When common sense said quit while you can but they didn't.

Judges -- more and more, anyway -- are prepared to sever litigation at the head when it's patently, egregiously wrong.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at 228-282-2423. 


Comments (4)

Howard
11:44AM MAY 21ST 2014
May 15, 2014 - The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), along with their co-defendants, have paid Feld Entertainment, Inc., the parent company of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey® Circus, $15.75 million to settle cases stemming from a lawsuit they brought against Ringling Bros.® over the care of its Asian elephants. This historic settlement payment to Feld Entertainment ends nearly 14 years of litigation between the parties.

"We hope this settlement payment, and the various court decisions that found against these animal rights activists and their attorneys, will deter individuals and organizations from bringing frivolous litigation like this in the future," said Kenneth Feld, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Feld Entertainment. "This settlement is a significant milestone for our family-owned business and all the dedicated men and women who care for the Ringling Bros. herd of 42 Asian elephants. We look forward to continuing to set the standard for providing world-class care for all our animals and producing high quality, family entertainment."

HSUS and animal rights groups the Fund for Animals, Animal Welfare Institute, Born Free USA (formerly the Animal Protection Institute), the Wildlife Advocacy Project, the law firm of Meyer, Glitzenstein & Crystal, and several current and former attorneys of that firm, paid the settlement for their involvement in the case brought under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) that the U.S. District Court ruled was "frivolous," "vexatious," and "groundless and unreasonable from its inception." Today's settlement also covers the related Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) case that Feld Entertainment filed against the groups after discovering they had paid a plaintiff for his participation in the original lawsuit and then attempted to conceal those payments.

In December 2012, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), a former co-defendant in the case, settled its share of the lawsuits by paying Feld Entertainment $9.3 million. Today's settlement brings the total recovered by Feld Entertainment to more than $25 million in legal fees and expenses, which the company actually spent in defending the ESA case.

"After winning 14 years of litigation, Feld Entertainment has been vindicated. This case was a colossal abuse of the justice system in which the animal rights groups and their lawyers apparently believed the ends justified the means. It also marks the first time in U.S. history where a defendant in an Endangered Species Act case was found entitled to recover attorneys' fees against the plaintiffs due to the Court's finding of frivolous, vexatious and unreasonable litigation," said Feld Entertainment's legal counsel in this matter, John Simpson, a partner with Norton Rose Fulbright's Washington, D.C., office. "The total settlement amounts represent recovery of 100 percent of the legal fees Feld Entertainment incurred in defending against the ESA lawsuit."

In the original ESA lawsuit, Feld Entertainment discovered the animal rights groups and their lawyers had paid over $190,000 to a former circus employee, Tom Rider, to be a "paid plaintiff." The Court also found that the animal rights groups and their attorneys "sought to conceal the nature, extent and purpose of the payments" during the litigation. Their abuse of the judicial system included the issuance of a false statement under oath by Rider, assisted by his counsel, who the Court found was "the same attorney who was paying him" to participate in the litigation. The Court found in addition to Rider being a "paid plaintiff," that the lawsuit was "frivolous and vexatious." As to why any of this original story had to be changed by anybody is beyond me unless they wish to muddy the waters to whitewash HSUS criminal acts. In fact part of the evidence was a check signed by Wayne Pacelle to the Wildlife Advocacy project for Tom Rider and this case was settled as the RICCO act was involved and Wayne knew he faced real prison time. I don't know how anyone who works for HSUS and these animal rights cults can live with themselves as they have to lie. They cannot even ask themselves why HSUS is putting 75 million in offshore banks isn't that what tax evaders and criminals do to hide their money or launder it.
Sarah Barnett
4:21PM MAY 19TH 2014
I work at HSUS, and wanted to clarify quite a few things that are incorrect in this piece. This case was filed 14 years ago, and HSUS was not involved in bringing it. It was brought in 2000 by the ASPCA, Animal Welfare Institute, The Fund for Animals, and later the Animal Protection Institute, with all groups represented by Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal, a public interest law firm. The HSUS became affiliated with The Fund for Animals in 2005, several years after the case was filed, but HSUS was never a party in the case.
Regarding Tom Rider, who is now deceased, he was a former Ringling Bros. employee who spoke out against the abuse of circus elephants. He had traveled around the country in a broken down VW van telling his story of what really happens to elephants behind the big top. The organizations paid some of his travel expenses to talk to the media, but did not pay him for his testimony.
Nancy Smith
7:44PM MAY 19TH 2014
I apologize for including "the Humane Society" in the list of original plaintiffs. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS said the Society didn't participate because it had other things going on at the time. I missed that. The column has been corrected.
Joel
5:47PM MAY 19TH 2014
I can't find the errors in this story that you find, Ms. Barnett. Nancy said the case originated in 2000. She did not say the HSUS was involved in bringing the suit but she did quote HSUS President Pacelle who wrote about the case. If you look at the testimony in the case you will see the court and not Nancy opined that Tom Rider was a paid plaintiff. I agree it would have made a better story if Nancy reported what happened to Rider, but you will have to show me where the errors of fact are in the story.

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